The attorney working for the National Basketball Referees Association stops by to discuss negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NBA and new changes brought on by the labor deal.
So often we talk about the billions of dollars spent in professional sports, whether it be media rights, contracts, sports betting, viewership — you name it. All play a major role in how decisions are made in a subsequent collective bargaining agreement between a league and its labor force.
We tend to learn as much as we’d ever care to know (and more) about what these moments mean for athletes — but what about the characters behind the scenes? The ones blowing the whistles who are a part of our games just as much as the players, whether you like it or not?
As Lucas Middlebrook would tell you, “Without [referees], the sport doesn’t thrive.”
Middlebrook is an attorney at Seham, Seham, Meltz & Petersen LLP and serves as a collective bargaining agreements representative for the National Basketball Referees Association (NBRA), among others. In a conversation with Boardroom, Middlebrook broke down what CBA negotiations between leagues and referees truly entail, as well as how the refs union has built new models for income as part of this latest pact.
On Sept. 15, the NBA and NBRA subtly announced a new seven-year CBA had been agreed. We previously explored how much refs make in the Association in terms of reported base salary, but it turns out that the makeup of a referee’s income is much more detailed than we ever could’ve guessed.
Here’s how Middlebrook explains the basics:
“The first place you start is the base salary. That is a seniority-based scale we call a ‘salary scale’ in collective bargaining or in the labor world You can think of it in two ways: a salary scale is what we call a linear scale, it moves in two directions. So, it’s a seniority-based scale, and when that scale ends — meaning how long it takes to get to the top of that scale — the highest compensation, we call that a ‘top-out.’ The top-out is at 30 years — a referee’s seniority increases in compensation until you reach 30 years as an NBA referee. Every year of service, you’re getting an increase based on your years of service increase… year-to-year or season-to-season has increases built in.”
There’s a middle ground the union must find so that refs get paid with a base salary as their primary source of income, with tenure serving as a raise they receive with every new season that kicks in.
“We refer to the increases each year as diagonal because they’re getting a north-to-south seniority increase, but they’re also going left to right — the whole scale increases by a certain percentage each year,” he said. “And so, as they move diagonally through the scale, they’re getting two separate increases every year in the base salary. They’re getting a seniority increase, and they’re also getting an increase based on the percentage.”
Explaining the history behind the pay scale, Middlebrook says CBA didn’t have this sort of linear model until 2015. And though he legally isn’t allowed to disclose the actual dollar figures going into referees’ pockets, he said that the percentage of league money that referees receive did increase in the most recent labor agreement. For what it’s worth, the reported base annual salary for a senior-tier ref in the past CBA was $550,000, a figure that he could not confirm nor deny with regards to current figures.
Middlebrook did, however, confirm something new in this latest seven-year pact.
“In this contract, there was a new concept that the parties agreed upon called the ‘variable assignment compensation’ (VAC), which is a lump sum that was negotiated between the parties, a sum you would achieve after working X amount of games in the season,” he said. “So, if you hit that hypothetical number of X amount of games in a season, then the contract says you get this additional lump sum of money. For the first time, it was introduced in this CBA and ratified as part of the entire agreement.”
In short, refs are essentially incentivized for reaching a certain quota of games on top of the base salary they’re already making. Combine the linear model with the new VAC concept and they’re in their best position to date.
Still, that isn’t all.
“We refer to anything that isn’t on the scale as ‘ancillary compensation.’ They receive a crew chief stipend, so anytime that they are serving in the role of the crew chief, they get an additional X amount of dollars on top of their salary scale,” Middlebrook said. “Plus, they’re compensated more for officiating playoff games. The way it’s structured is that the parties actually negotiate a lump sum [for] what they call the ‘playoff pool’ — that’s a lump sum for entire playoffs, then it’s broken down per round, so that the deeper you go into the playoffs, the greater share of the playoff pool that you will earn. So, if you’re an NBA referee who works all the way through the Finals, you’re getting a larger share of the playoff pool than someone who’s only working in the first round.”
Critically, NBA referees work for years and years before even earning the chance to come anywhere close to the big leagues, but once they’re in the door with the Association, they have rigorous travel schedules amid an 82-game season. They get berated by fans now more than ever — legalized sports betting in an increasing number of states has only increased anger and frustration towards the officials, Middlebrook noted, because money is on the line.
“When people gamble, they’re obviously taking an increased economic interest in each game and they have a tendency to lash out at the referees if they lose. It absolutely becomes a focus for the union,” he said. “But it’s also a focus in terms of why these referees need to earn a respectable amount through their collective bargaining agreement, because now, there is this extra layer that’s developing in terms of the pressure of their work. I don’t wanna say the importance, but they are the arbiters of the game, and it’s their job on the court to not only enforce the rules, but to uphold the integrity of basketball.”
Beyond that pressure, chasing their dream job forces them to miss time with loved ones — a massive reason why people like Middlebrook fight for them not only to earn proper compensation, but also a sustainable level of work-to-life balance.
“You know, they’re on the road a lot. Off-days are precious to them,” he said. “And being able to get home is quite precious as well, because as you can imagine, there’s lots of missed birthdays, there’s lots of missed holidays, graduations during the course of a referee’s career. That also becomes a topic of negotiations — protecting the ability to be at home for certain periods of time and things of that nature.”
All told, in the eyes of Middlebrook and the members of the Refs Association, this latest collective bargaining agreement marks a major success. They leveraged higher income by introducing innovative strategies, and they additionally brought important dialogues into the light with regards to the several hurdles that come with the job.
They’ve also placed a focus on diversity among NBA referees, especially pertaining to women, and finding the best ways to bring the NBA, G League, and WNBA together under one umbrella to enhance each product as much as possible.
“I believe the NBA just released news in the last few weeks about the new hires this season, and there were some additional women who previously worked in the G League or WNBA,” Middlebrook said of this progress. “Look at Cheryl Flores, she spent time in the WNBA and the G League. We just wrapped up a new G League collective bargaining agreement a couple weeks ago; that one is a five-year deal, and they’re represented by elected individuals from those groups who serve as the board members in the union. That’s a way that the union has been able to assist with growing diversity of the workforce – by unionizing those two groups and bringing all three groups into the same rubric of the union.”
It’s important that in all facets of sports, we remember that players, coaches, refs — yes, refs! — are still human beings with feelings and families. They have good days and they have bad days. But in Middlebrook’s ideal world, the human element inherent to refereeing a sport like professional basketball can and should be a point of pride.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our story, where we’ll explore that particular theme in more detail.
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